In eighth grade, in the middle of reading lines from Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors—a play my English teacher insisted was “funny if you would just put in the effort”—the two girls who sat behind me, who weren’t even the worst of the worst, took out a box of packing peanuts and dumped its entire contents on my head. When I came home with little bits of white fluff in my hair my grandmother exclaimed, “You’ve gone white!” in Chinese and I mumbled, “It’s freakin’ Styrofoam!” in English and locked myself in my room, crying in that heinously dramatic way I had learned from watching my heroines on TV cry—the Lindsay Weirs and Angela Chases who seemed to have pain rumbling from their every pore, and yet, unlike me, they had friends who stood up for them, boys who tried hard to understand them, and a world that wasn’t entirely hostile to every fiber of their being. I had packing-peanut pieces in my hair, a lifetime membership to the Itty Bitty Titty Committee, and the rest of my miserable life to dream about escaping a world that I swore could never ever understand me.
When middle school ended, I scrawled in my yearbook, “MEMO: Eighth grade was hell. I hope Glen Cove burns down to hell. I was THE outcast,” and subsequently spent the summer feeling lonely and abandoned, like a fleck of paint flung out to a part of the world without buildings or walls, someplace where my small, negligible life did not belong. “My life will always be like this,” I wrote in one of my many notebooks that summer. If no one was going to talk to me, then I would talk to myself. If there was no one who I wanted to listen to, then I was going to listen to myself. That summer, I filled up eight notebooks with poetry and song lyrics that you couldn’t tie me up and drug me into looking at again.
In ninth grade, I mixed sugar with water in my mom’s spray bottle and used the mixture to spike my hair. It would be another year before I watched SLC Punk and decided that I was a secret punker who was too good for the suburban hell I lived in. I was a misfit whose poetic sensibilities were just too poetic to ever be understood or accepted by the kids who traded last year’s wide-legged JNCO skater pants for this year’s Gap polos. I told myself that the kids who abandoned Green Day for Britney and would abandon Britney for whatever MTV told them to like the next year, who laughed at our 75-year-old math teacher when she fell off her stool in the middle of explaining proportional fractions and then laughed at me when I went to help her get up, who prided themselves on how little they ever thought about anything and publicly shamed me for how much I always thought about everything, would grow up to be the kind of people who talked about high school like those were the halcyon days, like life peaked back then and would never be as good—and, for them, it wouldn’t.
Just to keep myself from sinking, I had to believe that these kids, whose meanness and cluelessness were validated and encouraged by the entire structure of high school, would one day lead miserable, dreamless lives while I filled mine with poetry and rock & roll and adventure and love. And one day, I would return to this town that once gave me so much grief for not wanting to wear what everyone else wore and not wanting to cheat on tests like everyone else cheated on tests and not caring about sports or cheerleading or bake-sale fundraisers or junior prom or senior prom or pep rallies or making fun of my teachers. I would roll through town and still be the weirdo I have always been, but instead of its being something grotesque, something to be attacked, it would be this dazzling, amazing thing. Maybe I’m not too weird for this world, I thought in ninth grade, hair sticky with sugar. Maybe the world isn’t weird enough for me.
And it wasn’t. It just wasn’t. I wrote angsty poems about feeling hellaciously black in a world of sunny, cheerful yellows. I briefly dated a boy who was the lead singer of a screamo band called—I crap you not—NINTH DEGREE BURN. He drew Xs in permanent marker on his wrists and layered black rubber bracelets over them. For Valentine’s Day he gave me a fake rose that he had dyed black, and I gave him two carnations like how you were supposed to do at funerals. All of my friends’ screen names were like xNxOxOxOxIxWxOxNxT or like xXwishyouweredeadXx. I started wearing clothes from my mom’s closet, fun stuff like this white Heidi-of-the-mountains lace-up suspender skirt that had people yodeling at me in the hallways and asking if I was competing in the Ice Capades this winter.
I had a total of maybe four friends, none of whom I ever confided in or spent time with outside of school, but they were misfits too. One of them had been misfortunately nicknamed “the plumber” because someone had spied her crack in shop class; another wore her hair in a long, thick medieval braid right down to her rump and pretended that our little suburban town in decline was really the Welsh countryside, sprawling and giving. Another was a practicing Wiccan whose mother had pictures of naked, oiled rock stars in her house and once lent me a black cape to wear, just ’cause.
As high school went on, I became bolder, more contrarian. It seemed like I was one of four people in my school who read books outside of class. I argued with my English teachers whenever they insisted there was a “right” way to interpret a text. I loved Joyce and Keats and Frost and Melville and Twain and Woolf and Lawrence, but resisted their place in the English canon all the same. I disagreed openly with my teacher’s Freudian reading of The Metamorphosis and tried to formulate my burgeoning thoughts on feminism and racism while the rest of the class was falling asleep or copying each other’s homework for the next period’s class. My English classes turned into one long dialectical conversation between me and my teacher about literature and privilege and criticism. I stomped around in platform combat boots and shredded sweaters and my mom’s old clothes that I rescued from the Dumpster. On days when I just couldn’t bear to step foot in my high school, days when I knew I couldn’t take it, I would skip school and take the bus to Queens and then a subway to the East Village because I harbored some absurd delusion that if I stood outside Kim’s Video in my combat boots and my shredded clothes and my sugared hair that made me the target of confused bees everywhere for long enough, I would eventually be swept up into a world of art and music and poetry. Deep down, as a 15-year-old misfit, I honestly thought that I would find my community just by standing around and doing nothing.
But I didn’t, and I was learning that standing around and doing nothing would not get you any closer to finding your place in the world. I had to do something. If everyone said I was weird, I thought, then maybe I was weird, and maybe I liked it, because I had to like myself if I was going to keep on living, and I wanted to keep on living, and if I wanted to keep on living then I would have to like whatever it was about me that marked me as “different” from everyone else. So I embraced it. I did stuff with it. If I was a speck of paint in a world without walls then I would build those walls myself. I convinced my parents to let me volunteer at a community center that put on punk-rock shows on the weekends and struck up a friendship with the director of the center, a 40-year-old former punker named Jim who gave me lists of movies to watch and introduced me to the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith and Television. When my dad brought home a crappy, old-school, dial-up modem that I wasn’t allowed to use more than an hour a day because it made our phone lines busy, I spent that hour looking up profiles on AOL of people who liked Sylvia Plath poems and James Baldwin novels and listened to Jade Tree records, and put all of my energy into befriending them. I made friends with an anemic, sensitive, literary punker from Omaha, Nebraska. We sent each other care packages filled with Polaroids and mixtapes, collages that he had made for me and poems that I wrote for him. I was alone and I wasn’t alone.
I spent my lunch period writing poems about escape and fantasy. I cut my hair short and dyed it burgundy. I applied to a summer program at Stanford University for high school students who wanted to spend three weeks intensively studying philosophy. I got in, and for the first time in a long time, I was happy. I felt like I belonged somewhere. I made more friends in three weeks than I had in five years. The first night, 10 of us sat around in a circle talking about faith and our relationship to God and debated about abortion and the death penalty, and I explained how my atheism didn’t deprive me of morality or purpose. We stayed up every night until four or five in the morning just talking talking talking, frantic that there wouldn’t be enough time to learn everything about each other, and there wasn’t. “I’ll never be the same again,” I wrote in my notebook on the plane ride back to New York. And I wasn’t. My suspicion that there was space for me in this world had been confirmed, however fleetingly, and I thought maybe if I could just get through high school and escape my miserable town then I would continue to find these spaces already inhabited by others who had made the same pilgrimage that I wanted so badly to make.
I approached my last year of high school with a level of misanthropy that I find embarrassing now. When I was voted “Most Individual,” it felt like a backhanded compliment coming from my classmates, who systematically tore down individuality and championed conformity. I watched and taped religiously every single episode of Freaks and Geeks on my VCR, regularly staying after class to trade recaps and commentary with my English teacher, who identified as the “geek” to my “freak.” I fell to the floor, overcome with vindication, when in the last episode the AV teacher drew an imaginary graph for Sam, Neil, and Bill, illustrating the rise and decline of the high school jocks and popular girls who would never know glory again after high school, whereas the freaks, geeks, and cretins would steadily rise. I just have to wait, I thought. I just have to wait until I graduate from high school, and then I’m gonna get the hell out of here. I knew my people were out there, scattered like I was scattered, and somehow I was gonna traverse this fucking amazing universe and find each and every one of them and we would be one another’s barrier to the horrific outside world that did not love us, did not appreciate us, and did not care that we spent the first 17 years of our lives so utterly alone.